Helping Your Horse Survive the Cold

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Author: Susan Harris

Winter is here, and as we chip ice out of frozen water buckets, we may wonder how our horses stand the cold. The truth is, horses usually handle cold weather better than people do—they’re actually sub-arctic-adapted animals. However, they need proper cold-weather management and sometimes some extra help.

Nature equips horses for cold weather with a thick hair coat, heavy mane and tail, extra hair around the face, ears and legs and hooves that are immune to frostbite. The thick, fluffy hair coat traps air near the skin, just like a down-filled jacket. Extra skin oils (sebum) waterproof the coat, and long “guard hairs” let moisture run off instead of settling on the skin. The hair coat can stand up, trapping air close to the skin for warmth, so the coat may look extra fluffy on a very cold day. Eating plenty of fiber (especially hay) keeps the horse’s internal temperature up. If horses have shelter from wind and heavy precipitation, a dry place to rest and plenty of water and forage, they do very well outside even in very cold climates, such as in Iceland.

Winter horse care:

Winter management depends on your climate, how your horses are kept, how much they are worked, and their working conditions.  If horses are not working hard they often do best when kept naturally, allowed to grow a thick natural coat and turned out daily. Bare hooves are safer in deep snow and don’t collect dangerous ice balls. Older horses or those that grow a thin coat may need a turnout rug for extra warmth and protection. Horses are often more stressed by sudden and severe changes in weather than continuous cold.

Tips for winter horse care include:

  • Horses need shelter from cold wind and heavy rain, which penetrate their coats and chills them.
  • A dry place to stand and lie down is important; standing in cold, wet puddles can cause “scratches” or mud cracks.
  • Feed plenty of forage (hay and fiber) throughout the day, as that keeps their body temperature up. If it’s very cold, feed more hay, not extra concentrates.
  • Make sure your horse has plenty of water available (not frozen over), and that he’s drinking enough. Horses drink less in cold weather, but insufficient water intake can lead to dehydration and colic, especially in older horses.
  • If your horse is soaked to the skin, shivering or his ears are cold, he’s chilled and stressed; he needs a dry shelter and perhaps a blanket.
  • Long winter coats can hide early signs of weight loss, skin problems or lice, so check your horse daily, including his skin, eyes, feet and overall well-being.

Riding in Winter:

When riding a horse in the winter, a good, long warmup with plenty of walking is important. Muscles and joints may be cold and stiff and sometimes the footing is hard, so this is a good time to work on Centered Riding exercises at a walk and trot. Be aware of the footing—ice, frozen ground or slick mud can be dangerous, and while riding through deep snow is fun, it is strenuous work. Pay attention to your horse’s breathing rate and how hot and wet he’s getting.  A long winter coat can become hot and heavy with sweat or even soaked to the skin--it takes a long time to dry, and while the coat is damp and flat, the horse is vulnerable to chills. Never let a wet horse stand in a cold wind, and take extra care about cooling out. Horses in regular work that sweat excessively may need a partial or full body clip.

Ways to dry a wet horse in cold weather include:

  • Take off the tack and let him roll in sand or sawdust; this will blot up the moisture and hasten drying.
  • Rub the wet spots with a towel or a handful of straw.
  • Cover him with an open-weave cooling sheet or a wool blanket, or stuff a thick layer of straw up under his stable sheet, and keep him in a protected area, out of the wind, until he’s dry.
  • Brush out his coat until it’s fluffy before turning him outside; this restores the “loft” of the coat and its insulating qualities.

Blanketed horses:

Some owners body clip their horses or keep them blanketed in order to keep a short, shiny coat for winter showing. A horse that is kept stabled and blanketed needs extra care, grooming, and a well kept stall, and his owner must be careful not to expose him to chills.  A clipped horse, in addition to his stable blanket and turnout rug, may need a quarter sheet for riding, which covers his back, loins and hindquarters and prevents chills when doing slow work.

If you choose to blanket your horse, you must keep in mind:

  • Proper fit (no shoulder rubs or wither pressure)
  • Right material for the purpose (weight, warmth, breathe-able, water resistance)
  • Putting on & removing blankets safely
  • Fit and security so blankets won’t slip around (especially turnout rugs)
  • Adding or removing layers according to the weather & temperature, so horses don’t overheat and sweat under their blankets.
  • Blanket repair, cleaning and storage


First North American Rights

Other resources:

  • Grooming to Win, 3rd Edition, by Susan E. Harris, Howell Equestrian Library, 2008.
  • The Horse in Winter by Susan McBane, Published by Globe Pequot, 2005.